In the presence of member states’ representatives, the 72nd Session of the WHO European region of the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking dramatic decisions, this week, in Tel Aviv.
Director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, regional director for Europe Dr. Hans Henri Kluge and 53 ministers of health are discussing “Strengthening health emergency preparedness, response and resilience,” the “Framework for behavioral and cultural insights for health,” the “Regional digital health action plan” and ample other resolutions that will impact the lives of every woman, man and child in the region.
We believe they could also make their meeting in Israel a most significant turning point in addressing global health challenges by formulating a new, essential, bridge between public health and faith.
The WHO European region is the only one to geographically include the largest number of religious centers of world faiths, which spread their trusted gospel to billions of believers throughout the Region and beyond, including Rome (Catholics), London (Protestants), Jerusalem (Jews), Istanbul (Eastern Orthodox), Moscow (Russian Orthodox) and Haifa (Baha’i), among others.
In the wake of new public health emergencies and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe) and its member states must seize the opportunity of promoting, strengthening and nurturing a sustained, open-minded, inclusive and professional dialogue of faith and public health leaders for better preparedness and response in health emergencies.
The WHO Committee for Europe is meeting in Israel under the patronage of President Isaac Herzog, who was the first head of state to convene (November 2021) a historic summit at his residence in Jerusalem, with the leaders of the major faiths practiced in the Holy Land. Together with them, the president proclaimed a joint call for mass vaccinations and strengthening community resilience against COVID-19. At the end of the hour-long debate, Herzog concluded: “Interfaith cooperation is hugely powerful. I think that the fact that this fantastic call is coming out of the Holy Land truly sets an example and serves as a model.”
The Jerusalem Impact Vaccination Initiative (JIVI) was launched at that summit. Established as a Jerusalem-based, international collaboration of health professionals and faith leaders for promoting, supporting and providing technical assistance to countries rolling out national efforts, based on the Jerusalem vaccination model, which was hailed by many around the world.
Science and religion
JIVI HIGHLIGHTS the importance of the collaboration between science and religion, and urges religious leaders not only to lend their authority to medical and public health efforts to combat pandemics but also to combat misrepresentation and disinformation, which undermine this process and threatens the well-being of society.
Local faith leaders have the power, as trusted and influential community leaders, to strengthen community resilience. However, they too need the training to do that. Today, we need to draw on theological questions, particularly about what lessons we can learn from the past and current pandemics we are living through. The sanctity of life is a supreme value for religions and saving the life of any human being – who are all created in the image of God – is the greatest religious obligation of all.
Last week in Karlsruhe, Germany, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, JIVI reached a consensus of multi-faith panelists discussing “Faith leaders during pandemics.” They suggested that the Faith and Public Health bridge must expand beyond COVID-19 and be an essential building block in emergency preparedness and response plans at local municipal and national levels. Our first multi-faith workshop in Israel on “Responsibilities of faith leaders in supporting national efforts fighting pandemics and the tools at their disposal,” also stressed the importance of such a dialogue.
From Jerusalem, the city of major significance for the Abrahamic religions, we echo Herzog’s joint call of religious leaders mentioned above, the WHO quest for inclusive community partnerships and the interest of Regional stakeholders in our work.
We request that in the deliberations this week, WHO European region member states agree on concrete actions in developing, strengthening and nurturing a faith and public health bridge as an essential building block in the region’s plan of action for the coming years. We also invite WHO European region member states to join us in implementing a regional workshop on “Faith and Public Health” in mid-2023.
Rabbi David Rosen has been advancing good relations between religious communities for more than forty years, as he served as rabbi of the largest Orthodox Jewish congregation in South Africa; chief rabbi of Ireland; and more than thirty years based in Jerusalem. Rabbi Prof. Avraham Steinberg was awarded the Israel Prize in 1999 for his work and achievements in medical ethics. Dr. Inon Schenker is a global public health leader, advocate and senior consultant to the UN, governments and civil society.